Osama bin Laden: Control of News Is Over -- For Better and For Worse

Last Updated May 2, 2011 12:50 PM EDT

News of Osama bin Laden's death was out on Twitter hours before President Obama made his television announcement. It must have frustrated Obama to be the second ... uh, third ... fourth ... oh, whatever. He was long down the list of people announcing the news.

So was the mainstream media. Not that all outlets were in the dark about the rumors, but few were in a position to jump on them without confirmation. And that's the issue for society as well as business. If the White House can't keep a highly classified military operation secret until it's ready to release the details, how can any person or company hope to keep things under wraps for long when the slightest rumor can zip around the world in a matter of minutes?

A reason they're called dinosaurs
Big companies, the government and other major power centers have long relied on two basic techniques to manage the media: Frame stories in as positive a view as possible and control the release of information. That worked because conventional media outlets needed time to verify information, often had a limited number of sources compared to those potentially available across the world, and had no way to release information immediately (i.e., they had to wait for an evening broadcast or the next day's print edition). It was a lumbering process partly borne of accident and partly out of a laudable desire to pass along accurate information.

Social media channels have no such restrictions. In the case of bin Laden, It's difficult to have a military operation with no physical evidence anywhere if you're anywhere near a populated area, and people who are involved will likely talk to (or tweet) someone. For instance, an IT consultant living near the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where U.S. military forces found bin Laden, tweeted about the raid without knowing exactly what was happening. (Ironically, bin Laden may have drawn attention to himself in part by living in a mansion without Internet or phone service.)

And what of people who do understand the significance of what they see? Some announce the news. Facebook , Twitter, blogs, email, YouTube (GOOG), Flickr (YHOO), Internet chat -- all are mechanisms to disseminate information.

The law of really, really big numbers
Social media's power to transmit information quickly has everything to do with two irresistible forces: gossip and geometric progressions. People will believe and pass on virtually anything, whether true or rumor, so there's no cooling-off period that might otherwise slow the spread of a rumor. (Just look at the number of celebrity death hoaxes that have taken off via Twitter.)

One person who sees something doesn't have to reach the entire world -- just a subset of it. Some of those individuals will eventually pass on the information to their own networks. Each of them will likely reach at least a few who, in turn, pass on the news.

Say that, on a hot story, the news gets passed on by a new generation of communicators every five minutes. If there were two new people in each network who passed it on, then by the time 90 minutes passed, you'd have 15 generations of transmission, or 32,769 people transmitting the story (including the first person). Another half hour, and the total is up to 2,097,152. After 2.5 hours, the story has gone through 134,217,729 people.

It's the power of a geometric progression. Granted, no social network transmission acts in that pure a fashion:

  • Some people will mention something and no one will pass it on.
  • The time between transmission of a story and rebroadcast by the next generation may take longer than five minutes.
  • At times, readerships of two people will heavily overlap, so those who are likely to pass on a story might not because they've already seen it repeated.
  • The number of users likely to hear about and repeat a story will max out fairly quickly, as the potential numbers become larger than the total number of people on a given social network.
Keith Urbahn, chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld, officially broke the news last night. Ironically, he got the information from a television news producer who, presumably, couldn't do anything about it until verifying the rumor and getting a reporter on-air. American mass media were caught off-guard and rushed staff into Pakistan after the event.

Bye-bye, obscurity
Those are the advantages of social media, which maximize the speed of delivery through math and widespread disregard for the verification of information. We're entering a time of radical transparency, where anything and everything can come out in public, whether correct or not. Did the White House keep the killing under wrap for hours? Yes, but it was only a matter of time.

The practicality of keeping information secret is quickly waning. WikiLeaks obtained and released secret cables about U.S. foreign policy and damning files from Guantanamo. Researchers saw and announced that Android handsets and iPhones track user locations. Hackers uncover HBGary's alleged plan to intimidate enemies of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Any organization must assume that all information will eventually become public. To deal with that reality will require an entirely different approach to operations, strategy, and public relations. We may have come into an age where honesty really will be the best policy.


Image: Flickr user istolethetv, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.